Thursday, January 31, 2013

Watch Yourself. That is all.


My father used to shout this out when I was small and in danger of hurting myself, usually while doing something dumb, like running into the street after a ball.

My mother however used to say this to me, in a slow, low voice, accompanied by piercing eyes, when I was a teenager and in danger of being hurt emotionally, by my own headlong rush into territory I didn't yet understand, or by a careless boy, let's say.

About six years ago, when I was working on a magazine article with a life coach, she advised me: "Watch yourself," but she meant it in a different way altogether. She wanted me to observe myself carefully, as if from a distance, so that I could develop a keener awareness of my actions in areas of my life I wanted to change. 

I've been thinking lately about these two words, for reasons too complicated to address right here, right now.

But mostly, I keep coming back to the idea of observation, truly watching myself, and how important it is, and how frequently I don't do it. Watch yourself.  Doesn't it seem like good advice, no matter what  one is doing, working on, worried about?   

I'm sure I could think of a half dozen ways I could tie this into writing. But I won't. I think it stands on its own. And sometimes, that's enough.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Stuff My Writing Students Say – Part 14

Here's one I hear rather often

"You're so lucky – you get to write any time you want. I have to squeeze it in between work and kids and everything else. I wish I could sit home all day and write."

I have no idea who this person is talking to, because it certainly can't be directed at me. Oh but it is. Writers I work with think that because I work at home (most of the time), and/or because I am immersed in working with writers and with the written word, that I can spend hours each day on my own creative writing work.

I wish.

For me, like for most people, most of every weekday (and some Saturdays too) are spent on making a living. It just happens that I do this around writing -- teaching writing (and planning lessons, assignments, reading materials), coaching writers, providing feedback on student writing, editing book manuscripts, editing for a regional website, editing essays and short stories for a magazine, writing book reviews and freelance feature articles. Even the reading I need to do to for all of the above is done mostly outside of regular working hours – the books to review and, next month, the books that will arrive for a contest I'm judging.

This leaves me – like oh, a zillion other writers I know – with the late night and early morning hours, the occasional full weekend day, the stolen coffee shop hour, the occasional light workload day (when I'm busy worrying about finding more work) to spend on my own creative writing work:  personal essays and the memoir manuscript, poems and short stories; even submissions. I too write while parenting and amid other obligations.

So, how to get it done?

I can go on and on about time management and routines and discipline. I could talk about being a night owl (and when I need to, an early riser). But here's the one thing I know for sure:  One of the key reasons I get things done is because I say I will AND I say it to the right person, at the right time.

Usually, I tell my friend Deborah, also known as my accountability buddy and the "Chairman of my Board of Directors" – that I will get X written by Y date (usually the next time we meet for breakfast a month later). And then I get it done. Because I said so.

In December, I told her I wanted to get something written that had been nagging at me for a year. We set two interim check-in dates (also known as her sending me pestering emails and texts). We put our January breakfast on the calendar (we've been meeting once a month for more years than either of us care to admit). And then, I did it. I got up two hours earlier every morning for about 16 days (and you know how I hate to do that), and positioned myself at the keyboard from 6:15 to 8:15.

So, to the student above who thinks the secret to being a more productive writer is in working at home, or in working within the writing world – I can only say: it's not.

There is no secret, no luck. Or if there is luck involved, then you are just as "lucky" as me, because you too have the ability to get up earlier, stay up later, ditch the volunteer committee, get someone else to empty the dishwasher. You too can write in the fringes – and make those hours a little emptier, a little longer.

To get my recent writing project done, something had to go -- in this case, sleep. If you are occupied most of the time with work, kids, eldercare, or other obligations, and you are going to write, you are going to NOT do something else. I'm not the first to say that. And neither was Anne Lamott, though she said it so well. But it will always be true.

Do I on occasion work on my own writing in the middle of the day when I should be working on something that's attached to a paycheck?  Of course. Do millions of people occasionally shop online during the day when they should be working? Of course. And like them, I get the paid work done later – after dinner, instead of eating lunch, on Saturday morning.

Everyone who writes can figure out how to get lucky in that way.

You can read the rest of the Stuff My Writing Students Say series here.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, January 11, 2013 Edition

> Want to access literary journals on your iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch? Check out the LitRagger app.  Among those available are: Bellevue Litearary Review, Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, and more.

> At Magical Words, some tips for keeping your dialogue real (hint: by making sure it isn't).

> The poet who will write for Obama's inauguration worked as a civil engineer before his writing career gained traction. In the New York Times, Richard Blanco's work is described as "laden with longing for the sights and smells of the land his parents left behind (Cuba)."

> When submitting to literary journals, it never hurts to review the most common reasons for rejection, offered in this post at Inkspill.

> With her characteristic wit, grit, and candor, nonfiction author and college professor Sonya Huber answers writers' most frequent questions in one terrifically engaging post.

> At My Journal Coach, Jeanne Westervelt Rice offers tips for journal writing, including a worksheet for those affected by storms

> Finally, I do hope my corraded Friday links list today will not too badly jargogle your mind. Perhaps this last link will even make you kench. Writers, go forth and have a day in which you avoid perissology and aspire to scriptitation. If those lines have not put you into a widdendream, wander over to Matador Network for "20 Obsolete English Words That Should Make a Comeback." 

Have a great weekend!

Monday, January 7, 2013

The freelance jobs we seek vs. the jobs that find us: Lessons learned.

In a recent post, I mentioned that the list of things we did in a writing year is worth studying.  For me, three such items on my 2012 *I Did It List*, for example, had something to tell me. These involved two opportunities which came my way without my going in search of them, and one which didn't

The two which sort of fell at my feet are the exception, not the norm. Normally we freelancers pursue existing opportunities, or try to create ones where none seem available; we follow-up on leads and tips and referrals, respond to job postings, send queries and pitches and letters of introduction. But sometimes we get lucky - if that's the right word.

Last week, I was telling a friend about the two new jobs that seemed to come from thin air – one for a website (where I now work the editor's desk one day a week), and the other for a writing center (where I am now teach creative nonfiction). The website editor and the writing center director both contacted me, and within a few days, each asked me to join them, and I said yes.

"You mean people just call you up and offer you jobs you didn't apply for?" she asked, part disbelieving, part joking.

Well, yes – and of course, no. 

About four years I met the website founder at an event hosted by a local writers and editors organization. Over the next few years, we ran into one another at book launch parties, and chatted about our writing lives. Then, a bit stuck between novels, she signed up for my Boot Camp, and when it was over invited me to breakfast. Months later I reciprocated, and over lunch asked if she know of any part time, permanent freelance jobs. She did not, and her own site had no editor openings either. Fast forward six months; the site owner took a major new media job, two editors were moving on; her editor-in-chief emailed to say she needed to fill editing slots. We talked, I said yes and started a week or so later. So, did someone offer me work I hadn't specifically asked for? Yes. Sort of.

The teaching job came about similarly. About three years ago at a regional book festival, I met two local novelists who were sharing a table (and would eventually become co-directors of a writing center). A few months later, I invited one of them to contribute a guest post here. Over the next two years, our names kept coming up in intersecting circles. We all knew a lot of the same local writers, became Facebook friends, commented on one another's blogs.

I noticed, and admired, what they were doing in establishing a physical location for writing education in northern New Jersey; I was keeping my eye on developments and wondered idly about contacting them about teaching. Meanwhile, it turned out they were noticing the teaching I was doing at Rutgers, and privately online. When the email arrived inviting me to talk about teaching creative nonfiction, we scheduled coffee a few days later, and struck the deal. So, did someone just offer me work I hadn't applied for? Yes. Again, sort of.

I say "sort of" in both cases because while I didn't apply for a specific job, it's good to notice in retrospect how these things happened:  an initial contact (both in person, as it happens), followed by continued interactions (online and/or in person); noticing what each other was up to professionally. In these instances, the way I went about simply doing what I do-- teaching, editing, writing, talking to mutual acquaintances, interacting online, helping other writers, being open and receptive to ideas, was if you will, part resume, business card, cover letter.


Usually it goes more like the story of how I got the third new freelance editing gig on my 2012 *I Did It List*. I noticed, sadly, that a magazine I admire was shutting down, and then a few months later, that a new owner was reviving it. I found her website and read her background, discovered we shared some common literary ground, and I liked her vision. New owner, working hard to revive a beloved literary magazine? Maybe she could use some editing help?

I wrote her a friendly introductory email, wishing her luck, and asking if I could send along my CV, so that if, in the future, she had editing needs. We connected on various social media channels, exchanged more emails; she looked over my blog and my published work, set up a phone interview, which went well. More emails -- defining the editing job, setting rates, getting to know one another's work styles. She sent me two essays to edit for one issue. Then, weeks later, four more for another issue.

Did she contact me first and offer me work?  Absolutely not. But then again, did I apply for a job opening? No, not really. From what I understand, the "job" didn't really exist when I sent my first email. It was just a hunch on my part that such a job would materialize, and need filling.

All of this is why, once again, I place so much emphasis on the idea of a writer's *I Did It List* exercise. Once we list our accomplishments – and after some much-deserved pats on our own backs – that list can be a trove of information about how we can do more, do the next thing, do the things that will go on the next year's *Want To Do* list. Anything that helps us understand how we did something can only help us figure out how to do the next thing.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Answering the *I Did It List* questions from writers

Recently, in response to my advice about writers making an *I Did It List," focused on what we accomplished in 2012, I've gotten a lot of feedback; curiously, not here on the blog, but via email, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and on other blogs that passed on the idea. Besides letting me know that the exercise struck a positive chord for many writers (which I'm thrilled about), most of the messages ask me one of three questions: 

First, Do I have something against New Year's Resolutions?  No, not at all. I just don't like that most are framed in sweeping generalizations (I will write every single day no matter what! I will finally finish that manuscript! And it will be fabulous!) that answer to undesirable outcomes and/or negative mindsets (I'm a lazy writer! My work got rejected too damn much last year! I have to improve my writing no matter what!)

I make a new yearly *Want-To-Do List* in January, just after the kids go back to school, the house is no longer decorated, and it feels once again like real time. But I think of this particular year-ahead exercise as a way to update my writing career/writing life plans rather than as resolving to do things differently or anew or so very much better.

I rather like what Drew Myron says about mentally skipping ahead to March, when we're a bit more realistic. Sure, I think it's great to dream big, engage in all the self-motivation we can, put things in writing rather than letting all those great ideas float around in our too-crowded heads.

I also think it's useful to physically write down what we want to accomplish in the calendar year ahead; I'm one of those who really do believe there is some undefinable but real power in simply writing down what we want (as long as we also work at it!).

Armed first with an *I Did It List* though, I think we are likely to have a more realistic idea of the amounts of energy, time, and resources we can actually marshal, and then plan accordingly for that *Want-To-Do* list. And while there's power in committing to a big goal, to stretching, to taking on more in the future than we did in the past, we all have real life limits.

If, between jobs, kids, volunteer work, and eldercare, you are squeezing in three hours of writing per week, I wouldn't make a plan for 2013 that says you will write for three hours per day. The exception: If your *I Did It List* for 2012 was painfully short, and you know it's because you squandered time and energy, slacked off, hung out on Facebook or watching every episode of Homeland ten times instead of writing – then go ahead, resolve. But resolve to make a plan, find discipline, maybe ask for some help; not to simply to "write more."

Second: Shouldn't we also make an It-Didn't-Happen list, to be completely honest with ourselves? Nope – I suspect that, like me, you do enough self-bashing silently in your head (and maybe aloud to your friends) all year anyway – venting, complaining, apologizing about the rough drafts not written, the submissions not sent, the revisions not made. Blah, blah, blah.

Who needs a formal list to remind us of every place we fell short? 

If it's important, and you didn't do it – it goes on the 2013 Want-To-Do list. If it's not really important, and you just keep feeling badly that you didn't do it – stop, please. Spend that mental time thinking of new things to write, or improve that draft.

Third: What was on my own personal *I Did It List*?  Not telling -- except in oblique ways which you may pick up in future (or past) posts.  The things on my list are meaningful only perhaps to me, and for that year, and for what are likely personally idiosyncratic reason(s). They might look like nothing much to you.

But I will tell you this: The value of the *I Did It List* is not only in the satisfaction it brings, the positive reality check, when we first see it all on one list -- but later, in the lessons such a list can teach us about the way we work, about the way our writing life works (or doesn't work). Which will be the subject of my next post. Writing it is already on my 2013 Want-To-Do list.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Writing Prompts for 51 Winter Days

Can a short writing prompt, delivered to your email inbox every morning, make a difference in your writing day? If you think it might, if you wonder if it could, if you have no idea but are curious -- consider signing up for my Winter 2013 Prompts Project.

Who are the prompts for?  Writers.

Novelists. Essayists. Bloggers. Poets. Short Story Writers. Dramatists. Writing Teachers. Freelance Writers. Creative Nonfiction Writers. Am I leaving anyone out? 

It's a simple idea, really - read the prompt, see what happens. Maybe it triggers something. Maybe you write something. A single meaningful sentence. A single spontaneous, silly, insignificant sentence - but one that feels good to write.  A few lines. A paragraph. Two. 

Maybe, if it's an off day or you have commitments that don't allow it to be a writing day, that's all you write that day. Maybe the prompt trips you into something more, pries something loose that now has to plow its way onto the page.

Maybe not.

Maybe you save the prompts for another day, when you need a little something something to get going at the keyboard, in your notebook, in your head. A day when the page is blank but you know your mind is not, though it just needs a little shake.

Maybe you delete that day's prompt. See what tomorrow's brings.  Or you pass along a prompt or two or all of them, to the writing class you teach, at the next freewrite in your writing group. Maybe it informs your next blog post, Tumblr, tweet.    

Interested?  Sign up here.*  Be prompt. Emails begin on January 9 (and end on February 28).

* Opt out anytime.